NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For the students that graduated from New Brunswick High School this past June, going to college or getting a job are usually next on the agenda. But for students with disabilities, those kinds of post-school plans can sometimes seem out of reach.
However, a non-profit employment placement and training program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities has recently partnered with New Brunswick High School to ensure that transitioning to the working world is an attainable goal for any student, no matter his or her abilities.
Project HIRE prepares differently-abled high school students for paid employment with workplace training, job sampling in the community, and assistance finding a paid position. In recent years, the program has increased its impact to include many school districts in Middlesex County.
Participation in Project HIRE begins with classroom-based instruction and ideally ends with a paying job for the participant.
Students classified to receive special education and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) are eligible for the program. Once a student turns 14 years old, the IEP must include a transition plan to address the student's post-graduation goals. This means Project HIRE can begin preparations for the working world well before a student is handed a diploma.
Matthew Fideler, the Project HIRE Coordinator, told New Brunswick Today that the program is "unique in that it offers a community-based vocational assessment and experience."
Historically, students with disabilities that wanted to work were limited to "sheltered workshops," the supervised work centers where individuals complete low-skill, repetitive tasks, like stuffing utensil kits or packing boxes.
While many adults still benefit from these programs, the upcoming students that have participated in new early interventional and therapeutic initiatives are emerging with the potential to work in more challenging environments.
To meet this demand, Project HIRE places students in positions throughout New Brunswick in places like grocery stores, day cares, restaurants and offices.
“The students we serve in New Brunswick are graduating with several vocational experiences on their resumes. They are sometimes better prepared to get a paying job than some of their non-disabled peers.” Fideler explains.
This makes independently earning a paycheck more attainable than ever for students with special needs.
Before receiving a workplace assignment, students are assessed by a Project HIRE representative to determine their needs and strengths. Then, students complete classroom trainings that address topics like social skills, how to travel independently, and other strategies to be successful in their new jobs.
“Some students think they are ready to work and they are not,” Fideler says. “For example, some students think they can skip work with a doctor's note, like how it is in school. The classroom training not only helps students learn important skills like conflict resolution and co-worker socialization, but it gives students an opportunity to process their experiences from working.”
The classroom component is coupled with unpaid, job sampling sessions where students try out several work sites under the supervision of a job coach. Project HIRE develops relationships with employers in New Brunswick to create positions that students enjoy and find challenging. Ranging from one to five days a week, students volunteer in the New Brunswick community in exchange for hands-on experience that can be used on a resume.
Assietou Khoussa, a Job Developer for Student Services, explained to New Brunswick Today how she demonstrates to employers that job sampling is a benefit to both the student and to their business.
"Employers are able to have students complete tasks for them at no-cost to the company," Khoussa says.
"Busy managers don't have to worry about training the student, because that’s what our job coaches do."
These coaches conduct on-the-job training with work-related tasks, like stocking or cleaning, and soft skills, like how to talk to a manager or handle customer questions. Ideally, these skills will help the student later on when they are of age to secure paid employment.
James Correa, a job coach with Project HIRE in New Brunswick notes that in comparison to other districts where he has worked, the New Brunswick school system is extremely committed to making sure their students succeed.
"In New Brunswick, the support system is a lot stronger. The teachers are interested in what the students are doing at work and I feel like I'm working as part of a team. Because they integrate job coaching with what the student learns in school, it's a more conducive environment for success."
Correa currently coaches a New Brunswick High School student that secured a paying job at a restaurant as a result of his job sampling experience with Project HIRE.
"I'm learning how to handle my money and how to wake up to go to work on time," the student told New Brunswick Today.
Correa notes that he has seen much more growth than the student likes to give himself credit.
"We are still working on travel training, punctuality, and interacting with his coworkers. It's been gratifying watching him grow and succeed. I'm looking forward to helping him be as independent as he can be."
"We treat each case individually based on the student's abilities, likes, and dislikes," Khoussa explains. "We want to give students a challenging experience, so sometimes we place them at work sites they think they may not like. Many of them wind up loving the work they do."
Students in the New Brunswick program have worked in many diverse settings, including restaurants, retail stores, and dog grooming salons. While developing marketable skills, students are strengthening the New Brunswick economy and convincing employers that they are a valuable part of the workforce.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that, as of June 2014, the unemployment rate for disabled people is more than double than that of non-disabled people.
In an attempt to alleviate this disparity, the program aims to assist its participants to become "competitively employed," a term used to describe the ability to earn a position on merit with a salary comparable to workers without a disability.
Employers that hire disabled workers for paid positions also benefit from a tax credit.
While the program works well in most cases, Fideler notes that especially in New Brunswick, students can face several unique obstacles that can impact their performance.
“Our students might have an intellectual or physical disability, but they are still susceptible to societal and cultural influences of living in a city,” Fideler says.
The Project HIRE staff are not only aware of how these factors influence their students, but they actively work to encourage self-advocacy and support program participants outside of the work placement.
When one New Brunswick student entered the program with a paying job at a local convenience store, Project HIRE staff discovered that he was only being paid 27 cents an hour.
“We were able to show him that he was being exploited and were able to not only help him quit that job, but find him one where he was being paid a real wage,” Fideler says.
Project HIRE helped to find paid employment for another one of its New Brunswick participants, but soon learned that he was being coerced into giving away his paychecks to gang members. Fideler helped him and his guardian set up a savings account and has now included a weekly supervised trip to the bank to deposit his checks as part of his job coaching experience.
Several participants in the program face additional challenges because they live with or are themselves undocumented immigrants. Some families fear requesting services from the program because they feel it might endanger their ability to reside in the US or might affect other government-subsidized programs from which they benefit.
Fideler emphasizes that a student’s immigration status does not affect their acceptance into the program, but may present difficulty when it is time to seek paid employment.
Many of the students in the New Brunswick program come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and might not want to work without being paid.
“The New Brunswick school district pushes us to find paid employment for their students much more than any other districts do. The promise of a paycheck is sometimes the only motivation students feel to participate in the program,” Fideler says.
“They want to make money because in some instances, they need to help support their family. We want to help them do this, but they don’t have the skills yet.”
In a rush to find paid work, many students wind up picking job sites for which they are unprepared or do not enjoy. Less time in the classroom developing work-related skills might contribute the high dropout and truancy rate in the New Brunswick program.
While Fideler understands the concerns of the school district and the students involved, he wants to improve the program model for the upcoming school year. He describes the classroom experience as a “vital complement to workplace exposure” and maintains that a more intensive classroom-training program would greatly benefit New Brunswick participants. More time spent in the classroom means students will be better prepared for job sampling and ultimately, a paid position.
Despite these setbacks, the New Brunswick program has seen its share of victories.
One participant expressed interest in office work, but had difficulty finding a location that could accommodate his wheelchair. It didn’t take Fideler long to realize that the ARC’s own office in New Brunswick would be a perfect job sampling site for him.
“He was not just doing busy work,” Fideler says. “He was able to assist our finance director with proofreading and entering data.”
Fideler speaks fondly of how excited this student was to come to work at the ARC each day. "It gave him a sense of purpose."
Fideler and Khoussa hope to increase the program's impact by enrolling more New Brunswick students and forming more relationships with employers in the community.
While a significant portion of the NBHS population is eligible to be a part of Project HIRE, fewer than 10 students completed the program in the most recent school year.
Many employers do not understand the purpose of Project HIRE and turn away program staff before learning how it might benefit their business. When students participate in Project HIRE, they strengthen the New Brunswick workforce and local economy by increasing their independence and purchasing power.
If you or someone you know might benefit from Project HIRE, or if you know of a job site that could benefit from a student placement, please contact Matthew Fideler at 732 256 8228.